Trees figure into the stories and symbols of religions across the world. In Norse mythology the ash tree Yggdrasil connects and supports the nine realms. Drawing from this and other traditions, various neopagan movements value, among other things, environmentalism for both secular and spiritual reasons. As for North America, trees and other plants are central to the Medicine practices of several tribes. The cedar tree even appears on the Medicine Wheel important to certain sacred rites, with the associated cardinal direction of the tree varying between different tribes. Cedar also figures into the religion of ancient Mesopotamia, forests of cedar being where their gods dwelled.
That trees play a part in these and many other belief systems suggests that they have a fundamental appeal. In addition to being common components of many natural landscapes, trees are tall, sometimes imposing, and occasionally majestic. That people would attach and associate the reverence they feel toward religious subjects to these statuesque plants makes a lot of sense. In the past and up to the present, several religions have struck upon the same idea before encountering one another, the idea of a world tree. World trees are a type of axis mundi (world axis), a sort of pillar that conjoins or bridges the material and the spiritual. Yggdrasil is one example of this, and there are others as well. Beyond ashes and cedars, there are many other trees with sacred heritages. Notable among these are two varieties of fig.
Sacred Fig (Ficus religiosa)
The sacred fig is a deciduous tree that thrives in hot, humid environments with generous rainfall. They can grow dozens of feet tall, and are especially long-lived, being able to live hundreds if not a few thousand years in optimal conditions. The leaves are vaguely heart-shaped, coincidentally fitting given the sacred fig’s claim to fame.
Sometimes the species is referred to as the Bodhi tree, though this moniker is more correctly applied to only a certain tree and is direct descendants. The Sri Maha Bodhi and trees grown from its cuttings are the true Bodhi Trees, the latter group being the child plants of the sacred fig that the Buddha sat under in his quest for enlightenment (or Bodhi in Sanskrit and Pāli). One direct descendant can be found at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bihar, India, planted just to the east of the original Bodhi Tree. For this reason, the Mahabodhi Tree and Temple are the most important pilgrimage site in Buddhism.
Gautama Buddha and the Bodhi Tree
Before attaining enlightenment, the Buddha was known by the name Siddhārtha Gautama. He was a worldly prince who enjoyed the material delights his aristocratic position brought him, though he was also deeply compassionate and concerned with the topic of suffering. Over time this concern grew and led him to renounce the extravagance of his birthright. He turned to asceticism, a self-imposed exile from the secular world with the aim of focusing on religious matters, oftentimes in search of answers to specific dilemmas. Siddhārtha interrogated the reasons behind suffering under two masters, and seeking to further distance himself from lay influences nearly starved himself in the hope that this would push him closer to an answer.
Much of this meditation took place in the shade of the Bodhi Tree. A breakthrough came to Siddhārtha when a woman from a nearby village passed him. Seeing how emaciated he was she offered him some rice pudding. This act of compassion reconnected Siddhārtha with the initial reason for undertaking his ascetic path, compassion. Redoubling his pursuit of an end to suffering, a demon named Mara came to test him, for Mara was a lord of pleasures and saw Siddhārtha’s purpose as a direct challenge to his own. Mara ordered the demons under him to fire arrows at Siddhārtha, but through his concerted passiveness their missiles were transformed into harmless flowers. Mara then tempted Siddhārtha with his three beautiful daughters, but he did not budge from his place underneath the sacred fig, continuing his stationary search. Then, by touching the ground to call upon the earth to act as his witness, Siddhārtha banished Mara’s entire army by the sheer strength of his spiritual insights. Following this, he continued to meditate, and soon became aware of all his past incarnations, thus gaining an understanding of the process of reincarnation and how to escape it. The Buddha’s formulation, here of course simplified, was the Middle Path, a way of breaking free from the suffering of life and reincarnation by avoiding both harsh asceticism and over-attachment to the world and its earthly pleasures.
Banyan (Ficus benghalensis)
Banyans are another type of fig with sacred associations. The tree gets its name from a corruption of the name of a group of traders who customarily conducted their business in the banyan’s shade. Counter to the sacred fig, banyans are most notable for their extreme width. Among the older and more well-developed specimens, a single banyan can be mistaken for an entire forest by those unfamiliar with the tree. This is because the banyan’s seed is dispersed by fruit eating birds that defecate its seeds onto roofs and the canopies of other trees. Once this occurs, the banyan’s roots grow downward, cascading and enveloping whatever surface it sits atop. In the case of other trees, the banyan becomes parasitic, using its position to soak up the solar rays that would have gone to the other tree. As it continues to grow the roots become woody and dense, enclosing the original tree, effectively smothering it, which lends the banyan its other name, the strangler fig. Cut off from photosynthesizing, the host tree dies and shrivels away, leading to banyans with hollow trunks. Successful banyans continue branching outward, their roots becoming new trunks that then send out roots of their own and so on. It is the largest tree species in terms of surface area covered, and second only in total volume to the giant sequoia.
If you have seen a stone temple in Southern or South-East Asia with a tree erupting from its brickwork or that is coiled around the facade, then you have likely seen a banyan. Angkor Wat in Cambodia has great examples of this, so spectacular in fact that after the site had been largely abandoned for centuries, giving nature the chance to creep back into the space, when people came back to restore the ancient city and its temple complex many of these trees were left alone because of their visual appeal.
As for religious connections, the Hindu deva Krishna stood under a banyan while orating the Bhagavad Gita to Prince Arjuna, the former instructing the latter on moral and spiritual duty and rightness. The Bhagavad Gita is a section of the larger epic, the Mahabharata. Both are foundational texts among Hindus. Beyond this there is also the Kalpavriksha, a wish-granting tree common to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. While accounts vary between the religions, Kalpavriksha is speculated to either be or be based on the banyan. Whether it sprouts gifts fit for gods or self-propagating roots, the banyan and other trees will likely continue to inspire deep feeling in future generations.
“Bodhi”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/topic/bodhi-Buddhism, Accessed Aug 13 2020
“Bodhi tree”. Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/plant/Bo-tree, Accessed Aug 13 2020
Grubin, David. Enlightenment, PBS, http://www.pbs.org/thebuddha/enlightenment/, Accessed Aug 13 2020
Konstantinovsky, Michelle. “The Mighty Banyan Tree Can Live and ‘Walk’ For Centuries”. HowStuffWorks, Sep 3 2019, science.howstuffworks.com/life/botany/understanding-roots-banyan-tree.htm, Accessed Aug 13 2020
“The Medicine Wheel and the Four Directions”. Medicine Ways: Traditional Healers and Healing, Native Voices: Native Peoples’ Concepts of Health and Illness, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/nativevoices/exhibition/healing-ways/medicine-ways/medicine-wheel.html, Accessed Aug 16 2020
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